On Christmas Day in Hawaii, the Arizona Wildcats will be playing one of the toughest games on its schedule. After routing East Tennessee State and Miami, the Wildcats took a day off on Christmas Eve to rest for the matchup against the San Diego State Aztecs.
The Aztecs are 11-1 on the season with the only loss coming from Syracuse in a game that was played outdoors. San Diego State hasn’t had any other hiccups on the young season, even beating one of Arizona’s Pac-12 rivals, UCLA.
The Aztecs reached the title game by beating San Francisco and Indiana State handily. When the tournament bracket was first announced, Arizona and SDSU seemed destined to meet in the title game and now they will battle it out for the right to claim the title of “Best in the West”.
San Diego State is led by junior guard Jamaal Franklin, who at 6-foot-5 is a threat to score and rebound. Franklin is leading the team in both categories with nearly eighteen points and ten rebounds nightly and will likely get the defensive attention of Solomon Hill.
However, there may not be another Aztec playing as well as Chase Tapley. After scoring a career-high of 33 points against San Francisco, the senior could be in line for tournament MVP honors depending on the outcome of the game. Tapley also leads the team with eighteen steals on the season and can create momentum shifts with big plays.
The final guard in the starting rotation is Xavier Thames. The junior is also the last of the Aztecs to score in double figures consistently with 10.5 a night. Thames is a defensive threat who can also run the offense fluently. There are some times when he will be cutting across the lane and playing off the ball, but Thames is a player that can get hot and change the game.
Patrolling the lane will be DeShawn Stephens. The senior brings much needed height to the Aztec lineup, as he is the team’s second leading rebounder with 5.3 each game. Beyond that, Stephens is an asset on defense because of his size, but don’t look past his offensive production as he is scoring 7.3 points a game.
Sophomore J.J. O’Brien fills in the other forward spot and has started every game for San Diego State this season. At 6-foot-7, O’Brien also brings size to the lineup, giving the Aztecs a solid inside defender and rebounder. He has accumulated sixteen steals on the year while playing in the post.
Senior guard James Rahon should play a significant role in the game off the bench. Averaging over 21 minutes of floor time, Rahon is a good point guard who can easily fill in either of the guard positions at any point in the game. The senior is scoring seven points per game, but does not lack quick hands on the defensive side of the ball either.
Just a freshman, Skylar Spencer has played significant minutes in each of the Aztecs twelve games. Standing 6-foot-9, he is San Diego State’s tallest player and should get plenty of minutes in order to counterattack the height brought by Kaleb Tarczewski. In addition, he may serve as an extra asset to the Aztecs if the Wildcats decide to drive the lane, as Spencer has blocked sixteen shots so far.
St. John’s transfer Dwayne Polee II has also played all twelve games with his new team. The sophomore’s production hasn’t been great this season, but he has a potential upside that can’t be ignored. Polee II is a quality defender, but lacks in the scoring area, putting just three points on the board per night.
After serving a suspension to start the season, Winston Shepard has seen action in nine games and has been improving with each one. The freshman has played a total of 36 minutes in the Diamond Head Classic, but has scored just seven points. There is room for him to improve, but it may not be against Arizona.
With two ranked teams facing each other on a neutral court, anything is possible. On paper, Arizona has more size and depth, but San Diego State may have more experience. Both teams are incredibly talented and matchup well against each other.
The Wildcats handled a tough Miami team with ease, despite playing sloppy at times. They have played with passion and a sense of urgency when it has been needed throughout the season, but the Aztecs have as well. Arizona will look to defeat San Diego State for the first time in years while the Aztecs will attempt to hold their bragging rights for at least one more year.